Constance Cherry: Singing the Story

The Story of God. That was the recurring mantra for Robert Webber in his last months and years as he relentlessly worked for worship renewal in the 21st century. He was passionate about re-introducing the Christian community to the necessity of worship narrating God’s story of creation, Fall, redemption, and re-creation. Bob wanted us all to understand that worship is not about us and our ability to entertain ourselves. Rather, it was about announcing (through word, Table, gesture, enactment, symbol, and more) what God has done/will do from the beginning to the end of time.

I have been thinking about how song, particularly congregational song, must serve its role in telling the Story of God. On the plane as I made my way to Jacksonville for the January 2008 IWS session, I read a wonderful little book that articulated my thoughts better than I was able to do. I commend to you Paul Westermeyer’s The Heart of the Matter: Church Music as Praise, Prayer, Proclamation, Story, and Gift. In this book, Westermeyer states the obvious; yet somehow it is so remarkable that it seems new: “the church’s song is about the story.” What is it that Christians sing? They sing the story of God’s mighty acts. That’s what Miriam, Moses, and the Israelites sang upon their deliverance from Egypt; and so we sing, “the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea.” That’s what Mary sang in response to the Annunciation, and so we too sing the Magnificat. “From the beginning of the Biblical saga to its end, from one end of history to the other, the story is a song to be sung”, writes Westermeyer (p. 40).

I would like to suggest that the pastoral musician is someone who helps the people to sing the story. This must mean several things for the pastoral musician: that she knows the story and is committed to telling the whole story; that he is intentional about the texts of the songs above all else; that she includes God’s story past, present, and future; that he tells the story “in time”, with attention to days and seasons of the Christian year which convey scenes from the story. These are just a few ideas of what I think singing the story is about.

It is the pastoral musician who must see to it that when the worshipping community sings, they sing the whole story of God—that they sing of creation, Fall, redemption, and re-creation. So here’s the question. If you extracted all of the music sung in your church in the past twelve months, how much of the whole Story of God would have been told through song?

While prayerfully contemplating these things I was reminded of an old Gospel hymn that captures my desire (and I hope yours as well) to sing the story of God. It also reminds us that Bob continues to sing the story with us.

I will sing the wondrous story of the Christ who died for me,
how he left his home in glory for the cross of Calvary.
Yes, I’ll sing the wondrous story of the Christ who died for me,
Sing it with the saints in glory gathered by the crystal sea.
(Francis H. Rowley)
About the author

The Rev. Dr. Constance Cherry is Acting President of The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, Professor Emeritus of Worship and Pastoral Ministry, and Affiliate Professor at Wesley Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan University. She is also a founding faculty member of The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, teaching DWS 702 every term since 2000.